I often hear Catholics and Orthodox say they are the oldest churches and can trace through apostolic succession their churches back to 33 AD.
I posit that what is most important is having the correct doctrine. Men are fallible and can make mistakes. Once a church is institutionalized correcting those mistakes becomes very difficult, if not impossible, especially in the case of dogma that the church had declared de fide. We must be open to correction in our dogma and doctrine through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Christ promising us that the Holy Spirit would guide us into all truth was a promise for His Body, ie. all those who have been regenerated and are part of the Elect, not for any institutional church.
Likewise, the True Church is invisible. It is comprised of all individuals from the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches who have been regenerated and are part of the Elect.
Some errant dogma and doctrine crept into the Orthodox and Catholic churches over time. God used the glorious Protestant Reformation to return the Church to sound dogma and doctrine.
Thus we who are Protestant, and especially Reformed, have the true Apostolic faith which can be traced back to the very Apostles who wrote the New Testament. We alone can claim we are the oldest church and that our dogma and doctrine, via Sola Scriptura, is the most Biblical.
During the Reformation, the Reformers identified three main marks of a true church. The Belgic Confession summarizes the general view best when it lists the three marks as follows:
- “the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein”
- “she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments”
- “church discipline is exercised”
The first and foundational mark of a true church is that “the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein.” John Hammett explains:
[John] Calvin was willing to call a group a true church, even if they did not understand all of God’s Word aright, as long as they preserved and preached the pure gospel message. Here we encounter a true sine qua non of the church. If it loses the gospel message, a group of people is no longer a true church. It may be a religious society or club, but it is not a church, for God’s called-out people are called out by the gospel and come in response to the gospel.
The gospel is truly the sine qua non of the church. This means that it is absolutely essential and indispensable to the church. Without it, a congregation is not a congregation of the one true God. They may be a congregation of people meeting together, but they do not qualify as a congregation (or “church”) of God. When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he described them as follows: “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2). The congregation of God is made up of those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. This comprehends both his identity and work. One must call upon the true Christ, and not a false Christ. The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 explains who is to make up local congregations:
All persons throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel, and obedience unto God by Christ according unto it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are and may be called visible saints; and of such ought all particular congregations to be constituted. ( 1 Corinthians 1:2; Acts 11:26; Romans 1:7; Ephesians 1:20-22 )1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter 26
The phrase “professing the faith of the gospel” refers to the content of the gospel. Without the “faith of the gospel” there are no saints to constitute local churches. It seems the Reformers often equated the Word of God with the pure doctrine of the gospel, interchanging those terms for the first mark of a true church. Martin Luther said: “the sole, uninterrupted, infallible mark of the church has always been the Word.” Commenting on this, W. Robert Godfrey notes, “Without this mark, there can not be any hope at all for the others.” Hammett concurs: “For the Reformers, the preaching of the Word was almost synonymous with the preaching of the gospel. The gospel message of the Word was salvation by grace alone.”
When the Apostle Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia, he vehemently asserted that the gospel was of supreme importance―so much so that he said, “If we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). For emphasis, Paul repeats himself: “As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” The Greek word for accursed is anathema and it means to be doomed for destruction. The content of the gospel is so important in the life of churches that the Apostle Paul warns in the strongest language to refuse any false gospel.
The gospel is the good news. It is identified in Scripture as the good news of the kingdom, grace, God, peace, and even the good news of your salvation. However, the most used description of the good news is the gospel of Christ:
- Mark 1:1: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”
- Romans 1:9: “the gospel of his Son”
- Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ”
- Romans 15:19: “I have fully preached the gospel of Christ”
- Romans 15:29: “I shall come in the fulness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ”
- 1 Corinthians 9:12: “Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ”
- 1 Corinthians 9:18: “I may make the gospel of Christ without charge”
- 2 Corinthians 2:12: “When I came to Troas to preach Christ’s gospel”
- 2 Corinthians 4:4: “the glorious gospel of Christ”
- 2 Corinthians 9:13: “the gospel of Christ”
- 2 Corinthians 10:14: “preaching the gospel of Christ”
- Galatians 1:7: “there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ”
Manifestly, the gospel is about Jesus Christ. The gospel is not simply that Jesus died and rose (Jehovah’s Witnesses and other cults believe this), nor can it simply be that Jesus is also God (Roman Catholics believe that). It must encompass his person and his work. The content of the gospel, therefore, concerns Jesus Christ’s identity and work of redemption. The good news of Christ is a message of good tidings that centers around who Jesus Christ is and what he has done. Concerning his identity, Jesus Christ is the God-man, the eternal and unchangeable Son of God, very God of very God (John 1:1; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 13:8). To reject the true identity of Jesus is to reject the good news about him. A “gospel” which presents Jesus as anything less than the God-man is a false gospel.
The gospel is the good news of salvation for sinners. It is therefore about the work that Jesus Christ did (and is doing). In Christ’s great work of redemption (his life, death, and resurrection) he secured the salvation of all the elect. The Bible teaches us that the gospel of Christ includes the fact that Jesus “will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). It teaches us that Jesus Christ laid down his life “for the sheep” (John 10:15). It teaches us that all the Father gives to Christ will come to him (John 6:37). The Bible teaches us that “no one can come to [Christ] unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). It teaches us that a man must be born again (from above) in order to be saved (John 3). It teaches us that those who become believers are not born of the will of man (a decision), but of God (John 1:13). It teaches us that the repentance of sin and faith in Christ Jesus which are necessary for salvation are, in fact, gifts from God, given to the elect according to God’s grace (2 Timothy 2:25; Ephesians 2:8-9). The good news is that salvation is of the Lord, not man. Every aspect of salvation is of God. Steven Lawson comments:
The central truth of God’s saving grace is succinctly stated in the assertion, “Salvation is of the Lord.” This strong declaration means that every aspect of man’s salvation is from God and is entirely dependent upon God. The only contribution that we make is the sin that was laid upon Jesus Christ at the cross. The Apostle Paul affirmed this when he wrote, “From Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Rom. 11:36). This is to say, salvation is God determined, God purchased, God applied, and God secured. From start to finish, salvation is of the Lord alone.
In short, the good news of Jesus Christ is nothing less than what is often referred to as the “doctrines of grace” or “Calvinism.” Charles Spurgeon, the Baptist preacher from the 19th century, put it quite frankly: “[T]here is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.”
The gospel of Christ contains the great truth of salvation. The church is entrusted with this truth. 1 Timothy 3:15 tells us that the church is the “pillar and buttress of the truth.” It is the gospel of Christ and the gospel of Christ alone that has the power to save (Romans 1:16).
Thus we see that since Rome anathematized the gospel at the Council of Trent in the 16th century. In 1672, a synod of bishops gathered in Jerusalem to respond to Cyril Lucaris’ Calvinistic 1629 Confession. The council resoundingly rejected Reformed theology and drafted a formal statement known as the Confession of Dositheus. It soon acquired the status of being Orthodoxy’s definitive stance on Reformed theology. So the Orthodox also reject Calvinism and thus follow a different gospel; it is crystal clear that neither the Roman or Orthodox churches are true churches. They have members, some of which may indeed be counted among the Elect. But the churches themselves do not possess the gospel. And anyone saved in those churches will be saved in spite of the erroneous doctrine.
So we have seen that the Reformed, and only the Reformed, can rightly say that we are the One True Church!